Sometimes good intentions can backfire badly. Other times, we assume our intentions are better than they actually are. Billionaire Ted, a character in Sherman Alexie’s book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a man stuck in one of these categories. Ted feels a strong connection to Indians because he loves their art and their spirits. This leads him to buy a powwow dress from a man, even though he knew the man was a liar. This bothered Ted’s conscience, so he decided to return it to its rightful owner. An expert traces the dress to the protagonist’s grandmother, Grandmother Spirit. Ted arrives at the reservation just in time for her funeral. After a grand, pathos-laden speech, he gives the dress to Grandmother Spirit’s daughter, who immediately confirms the dress was never her mother’s. In fact, nobody present can identify the dress’s origin. Ted hesitates, then takes the dress and leaves in embarrassment. 
This is the only mention Ted ever receives in the book. The reader does not know anything about Ted beyond what the protagonist, Arnold, describes. Sherman Alexie uses Arnold to express his own beliefs, and he succinctly informs the reader how he—and many other Indians—see whites who collect Indian art: “Oh, God, he was a collector. Those guys made Indians feel like insects pinned to a display board.”  Ted is just a caricature with no relevance to the story, but he was placed there to make a point.
Many Americans assume that fans of Indian art and culture are some of the best allies Indians have. Because Indians constitute a very small and concentrated part of our population, most of us rarely if ever meet someone who is an Indian, let alone interact with them for an extended period. Most of the information we have about Indians come from impersonal sources like media depictions and museums, rather than personal interactions. In these circumstances, collectors of Indian art seem to be a good substitute. These are the people who will passionately speak up for Indians at every opportunity they have, and we assume that they are informed on every issue related to Indians.
Alexie clearly does not believe that a passion for Indian art or culture automatically causes someone to be knowledgeable about either, or to have Indian peoples’ best interests at heart. In fact, wealthy collectors of Indian art often contribute to some of the problems that Indians currently face. For one, non-Indians who love Indian culture often generalize the cultures they feel so passionate about. They talk about all Indians as if they are fundamentally the same, with their primary differences being in the aesthetics of their material culture. This risks the perpetuation of stereotypes like the Noble Savage or the Vanishing Indian. Another problem is that art becomes a major economic force in Indian communities because wealthy collectors demand so much of it, but they only demand art from some Indian communities. This is a problem for Iroquois artists. Their work is not valued by wealthy collectors the way Navajo art is, so the market price of Iroquois art is too low for them to make a living from it. In both of these cases, the core problem is that non-Indians are using Indians for what they want, putting their interests ahead of the Indians’ own.
We can counteract this by placing Indian interests ahead of our own, especially when we deal with Indians as a subject. This goes for museums, collectors of Indian art, and the population in general. Instead of treating Indians like a curiosity, we can dignify them by listening to their opinions, and showing a regard for their needs. This will sometimes mean dealing with contradictory opinions about what is best for Indians, both inside and outside the Indian population. It will also sometimes require collectors and museums to forsake what they want if it’s not what’s best for an Indian community, or for Indians as a whole. It will almost certainly create controversy and disagreement about what’s best. But it is the way to promote justice.
 Alexie, Sherman, TheAbsolutelyTrueDiaryofaPart–TimeIndian, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2007), 161-167.
 Alexie, 163.